Monday, August 23, 2010

Traditional School-Wide Book Reading: Creating a Culture of Big Ideas

I have been principal at the Newton Conover Health Science High School since January, and I have spent a great deal of time learning the culture of the school. The “Newton School” as it is fondly referred to by students and community members was established five years ago as a high school redesigned based on 5 Purposeful Design Principles delineated by the North Carolina New Schools Project. These 5 principles include: 1) Preparing College-Ready students, 2) Promoting powerful teaching and learning, 3) Personalization of student education experience, 4) Redefined professionalism, and 5) Purposeful design. (For more information on these design principles see here.)

But my post today is not about these design principles, it is about a tradition that was initiated here at the Newton School called “School Wide Reading.” Each summer, every student in the school is assigned one book to read over the course of the summer. The book assigned to our students this summer was the Nation Book Award winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Every student in our school was assigned this book, and during the first days of school, students will be engaged in activities designed to bring about an examination of the book and its themes in light of our school-wide culture. One of the unique characteristics of the culture of the Newton School is the value of discussing ideas called “big ideas.” The school-wide read helps facilitate this discussion. I have finished reading the book in preparation of the first days of school so that I too can be prepared should students wish engage in the discussion of the books ideas with me.

This is the Newton School’s sixth year. Gone is the support provided by the North Carolina New Schools Project. We are now truly on our own, which means the struggles we face every day now are going to be to keep certain positive aspects of the culture alive, like the school-wide read. The culture at-large still expects its high schools to fit a certain mold, so schools like the Newton School are expected to become like the one down the road. We must constantly remind both ourselves and others, the value in our school is that we can engage students in an educational experience that still embodies what is valuable in the 5 Design Principles on which we were founded.

As we move into this sixth year, and away from our relationship to the North Carolina New Schools Project, traditions like the school-wide read must be kept alive, not because the tradition by itself is valuable, but because it is one cultural component that says we are different. Successful high schools have an identity that distinctly separates them from others, and that identity is defined by the traditions of its culture whether positive or negative. If our high schools want to become places of learning in the 21st century, we must create and maintain solid cultural traditions in our schools that define places where students are valued and learning is treasured. We them must tenaciously defend that culture from the inertia of a society that forces schools at the edge of innovation to become clones of the 20th century school. Our school wide read is one of many aspects of our culture that defines who we are, and as we begin this new year, we embrace it fully.

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